“One-hundred percent disappointment” was the initial reaction from an advocate for athlete safety and sport integrity after the federal Liberal sport minister’s Dec. 11 announcement of an 18-month commission to study abuse and recommend solutions.
“For two years, the athlete groups that we’ve worked with, from gymnasts to figure skaters to fencers, have been very clear on asking for a judicial inquiry that has the ability and powers to compel people to provide information and evidence,” said Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete. “So it has fallen short.”
Sport Minister Carla Qualtrough (Liberal, Delta) declared that “Canadians deserve a sport system that is safe, responsible and accountable” when she outlined the “Future of Sport in Canada Commission” during a news conference in Ottawa.
The commissioner will be what Qualtrough called an “independent legal expert” with two special advisors. The commission’s budget is between $10 million and $15 million. The deadline is prior to the next scheduled federal election and a year before Vancouver and Toronto co-host matches in the FIFA 26 World Cup.
The exercise is not under the Public Inquiry Act, but will be modelled after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which ran from 2007 to 2015 to examine the history of abuse in Indian residential schools.
“It’s trauma-informed, victim-centred, forward-looking,” Qualtrough said. “There was a lot of research done into a model that we could balance the need to not re-traumatize victims or survivors, and, at the same time, do a real deep dive into the sport system and come up with concrete actions.”
Koehler said there is a silver lining: The government has finally admitted the “Canadian sports system is broken, it’s filled with the toxic culture of abuse.” But the devil is in the details. Who will be the commissioner and the two advisors? Will they be truly independent and beyond any suggestion of conflict of interest?
“We have been very open and very direct with the minister and her office, that if the right people aren’t selected, you we will kill this thing before it even starts,” Koehler said.
Qualtrough said one of the advisors will have “lived experience or expertise in victims’ rights, child protection and trauma-informed processes.” The other will have expertise and experience in sport.
There will be opportunities for open, public hearings, regional meetings and subject specific meetings, plus an online survey and portal for Canadians to make submissions. Qualtrough also said the commissioner will have the power to hold sessions behind closed doors in order to receive sensitive testimony.
“We are where we are today and we have to accept,” Koehler said. “But we’re not going to accept the status quo, we’re going to make sure that there’s a strong push that whatever is being developed, this is done in the best way that ensures independence, transparency, and no conflicts of interest. That’s the key.”
Qualtrough also announced the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner and the Abuse-Free Sport Program, set-up by predecessor Pascale St-Onge, will be transitioned out of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada. The previously announced Sport Canada Athlete Advisory Committee will become a ministerial advisory committee.
She pledged more “accountability measures” and “risk-based compliance” for federally funded sports groups in order to safeguard children and prevent match manipulation. Qualtrough also said she is talking to foreign counterparts on creating an international working group on sport integrity.
Qualtrough was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s original sport minister from 2015 to 2017 and returned to the portfolio in last July’s cabinet shuffle. The lawyer who swam for Canada in the 1988 and 1992 Paralympics expressed regret when a reporter asked why she made no headway against abuse in sport during her first tenure as sport minister.
“It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot, and I’m sorry, I didn’t dig-in more in my first go-round in this job,” Qualtrough said. “At the time, the safe sport issue, the integrity of sport issue was concussion. What parents and coaches and athletes and medical professionals were talking about was concussion and that’s the issue we dug-in, over those two years, creating national concussion guidelines, holding a national summit, creating and developing protocols for concussion.”
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